Diocletian’s Gentle Exit

Retire! An emperor!

he (Diocletian) alone of all men, since the foundation of the Roman empire, voluntarily returned from so high a dignity to the condition of private life, and to an equality with the other citizens.

Why? Saw trouble brewing and spurned ambition …

For, in fact, he was a close examiner of imminent events and when he discovered that on account of fate intestinal disasters and, as it were, a sort of disintegration of the Roman state were threatening, he celebrated the twentieth year of his reign, and while still in quite good health he gave up the administration of the state … And although regard for the truth has been corrupted because people have different opinions, nevertheless, it seems to me that he spurned ambition and stepped down to ordinary life because of excellence of his character.

Really? No, he was old …

But when Diocletian, as age bore heavily upon him, felt himself unable to sustain the government of the empire, … commit the duty of upholding the state to more vigorous and youthful hands.

But all emperors aged and still they lingered. He was ill and distracted said the first Church historian:

For a severe sickness came upon the chief of those of whom we have spoken, by which his understanding was distracted; and … he retired into private life.

Ill for a year and it unhinged him said the great Christian apologist …

his illness having lasted almost a year … The fit of stupor, resembling death, happened on the ides of December; and although he in some measure recovered, yet he never attained to perfect health again, for he became disordered in his judgment, being at certain times insane and at others of sound mind.

So his designated successor pushed him out and he skulked off in tears …

Within a few days Galerius Caesar arrived, not to congratulate his father-in-law on the re-establishment of his health, but to force him to resign the empire. … An assembly of the soldiers was called. Diocletian, with tears, harangued them, and said that he was become infirm, that he needed repose after his fatigues, and that he would resign the empire into hands more vigorous and able … Diocletian took off his purple robe, … and resumed his own original name of Diocles. He descended from the tribunal, and passed through Nicomedia in a chariot; and then this old emperor, like a veteran soldier freed from military service, was dismissed into his own country.

Which is it? Saw trouble ahead and chose to go? Old and chose to go? Ill and chose to go? Ill and mad and pushed out? All so immediate. So unlike this grand clerk. Let’s return to our Christian apologist who has Diocletian’s successor planning his reign and …

After that, he meant to have solemnized the vicennial (20 year) festival; to have conferred on his son Candidianus, then a boy of nine years of age, the office of Caesar (successor); and, in conclusion, to have resigned, as Diocletian had done.

As Diocletian had done? Yes, anoint successors …

appointed [as] caesars (subordinate rulers and successors) and made marriage alliances … annulling their previous marriages … which is what Augustus had once done.

Yes, celebrate twenty years …

set out … for Rome, there to celebrate the commencement of the twentieth year of his reign. That solemnity was performed … made a circuit along the banks of the Danube, and so came to Nicomedia

A plan. Set succession in motion. Go to Rome. Celebrate twenty years. Return east. Retire. An illness in between, on the road home? Perhaps, but not essential to the story.

And how was retirement? Disgrace, then starvation?

At this time, by command of Constantine, the statues of Maximian Herculius (Diocletian’s deputy in rule and Constantine’s father-in-law) were thrown down, and his portraits removed; and, as the two old emperors were generally delineated in one piece, the portraits of both were removed at the same time. Thus Diocletian lived to see a disgrace which no former emperor had ever seen, and, trader the double load of vexation of spirit and bodily maladies, he resolved to die. Tossing to and fro, with his soul agitated by grief, he could neither eat nor take rest. He sighed, groaned, and wept often, and incessantly threw himself into various postures, now on his couch, and now on the ground. So he, who for twenty years was the most prosperous of emperors, having been cast down into the obscurity of a private station, treated in the most contumelious manner, and compelled to abhor life, became incapable of receiving nourishment, and, worn out with anguish of mind, expired.

Fear then poison?

He was consumed, as was sufficiently clear, by voluntary death as a result of fear. Inasmuch as when, called by Constantine and Licinius to the celebrations of a wedding which he was by no means well enough to attend, he had excused himself, after threatening replies were received …, he, regarding assassination as dishonorable, is said to have drunk poison.

Cowering in madness, afraid of the lightening?

Diocletian … owing to the affliction of a disordered mind, endured the confinement of a mean and separate dwelling. … he passed the residue of his life in continual dread of the lightning’s stroke.


It was he who, when solicited by Herculius and Galerius for the purpose of resuming control, responded in this way, as though avoiding some kind of plague: If you could see at Salonae the cabbages raised by our hands, you surely would never judge that a temptation.

And death in peace and celebration right afterwards …

Diocletian lived to an old age in a private station, at a villa which is not far from Salonae, in honourable retirement … That happened to him, therefore, which had happened to no one since men were created, that, though he died in a private condition, he was enrolled among the gods.

Peace or fear? Suicide or nature? Celebrated or dismissed? Again such differences! Let’s return to the end of his reign …

It was in the nineteenth year of the reign of Diocletian … that royal edicts were published everywhere, commanding that the churches be leveled to the ground and the Scriptures be destroyed by fire, and ordering that those who held places of honor be degraded, and that the household servants, if they persisted in the profession of Christianity, be deprived of freedom.

Persecution of God’s men! Such a shame …

he reigned most prosperously, as long as he forbore to defile his hands with the blood of the just

Could such a man just slink off into peaceful retirement?

Diocletian, however, after the display of relentless cruelty as a persecutor, evinced a consciousness of his own guilt and owing to the affliction of a disordered mind, endured the confinement of a mean and separate dwelling. … What madness is this? and what an insolent abuse of power, that man should dare to fight against God; should deliberately insult the most holy and just of all religions?

And his Christian successor saw cost to more than mad Diocletian …

At length, indeed, the providence of God took vengeance on these unhallowed deeds; but not without severe damage to the state. For the entire army of the emperor of whom I have just spoken, becoming subject to the authority of a worthless person, who had violently usurped the supreme authority at Rome (when the providence of God restored freedom to that great city), was destroyed in several successive battles.

Civil war took his army. A ruler’s unhallowed deeds brought ruin to the state. Don’t challenge God or the state will suffer. Interesting, but another story.

Diocletian’s retirement was probably planned, his death probably natural, however baffling that appeared to those used to emperors lingering or God revenging.

6 Responses to “Diocletian’s Gentle Exit”

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